The Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago just released “Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century: a Conversation.” If you work at or with campus art museums, or art museums, or non-art campus museums, you should read it. Oh heck, just read it.
Tom Shapiro of Cultural Strategy Partners, Peter Linett of Slover Linett Strategies Inc. and Betty Farrell and Will Anderson at the CPC recruited eight museum directors and five outside experts from the art/museum world to look at how the field of college and university museums is evolving. Now that the report is out, it’s my turn to “think out loud” about how to promote “healthy evolution” and ask “what can these museums do differently or better to bring about [an] ideal future?”
With the blessing of the authors, I’m going to highjack the conversation and continue it on this blog—first by sharing one thought and two questions I had upon reading the report, and then by inviting follow up posts from other readers. I'll also be keeping my eye out for the Kress Foundation Campus Art Museum Study, which is forthcoming.
Thought: The Future of the Campus
The first thing I want to do is to push campus museums to think on a longer time frame and a bigger scale. When we consider the future of the campus art museum, we need to consider the future of the campus itself. As a number of educators and futurists have pointed out (most recently the educational futurists at KnowledgeWorks Foundation in their new report, Reigniting Education) the school of tomorrow will be a very different place—when it is a place at all.
Mounting educational debt, uncertain prospects for employment, the outsourcing and devaluation of traditionally high paid career paths (law, medicine), and the rapid proliferation of low-cost or free, high-quality instruction via the Web is transforming the landscape of higher education, and the most fertile innovations are coming in the realm of virtual education. Established universities are offering courses over the Web (some for credit), wholly on-line degree granting institutions are springing up and many organizations are experimenting with how to create alt credentialing via instruction and experience collected from a variety of sources. This begs the question, what role will campus museums play in virtual instruction? Since museums overall are rushing to digitize collections and create ways for users to interface with their content via the Web, a college or university that relies heavily on on-line content could, theoretically, co-opt such resources from a wide variety of sources. How can the digital presence of a campus museum be tailored in such a way as to support the unique on-line brand of their parent organization?
While most agree there is a continuing role for the physical campus, this may take new forms. For example: Northeastern University is building a campus across from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, and much of the instruction will be beamed in from the university’s home base in Boston. NYU is building degree-granting campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, and Yale is building a new campus in Singapore. If museums are a valued part of the social & education functions unique to a physical campus, will there be more pressure on campus museums to create satellites as well? With education increasingly unbundled and distributed, what is the role of museums in creating a sense of place?
Question 1: Abolishing Silos
Something bothers me about the way this question is framed, and to whom. The report itself notes that campus art museums battle the silo mentality that makes it difficult to create cross-disciplinary value. Why reinforce these barriers by limiting the conversation to art museums? We are, as a field, already too inclined to self-identify by our training and background. If one of the most valuable capacities of campus museums is their “capacity to do interdisciplinary work,” why not include other campus museums in the conversation from the start? I tried reading the report while mentally deleting “art” or “art historical” or “visual arts” throughout, and it seems to me it works pretty well. I’d be interested to know if people working in campus museums of anthropology, natural history or archaeology agree.
Question 2: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression
Participants in this report feel that that campus museums “have a greater capacity than their non-academic peers to be more experimental and innovative,” in part because they are protected by academic freedom and use metrics of success that go beyond attendance.
The fact that campus museums are not always firewalled from political pressure was brought home to me while I read the report by the controversy at the University of Wyoming over the deinstallation of the site-specific work “Carbon Sink: what goes around comes around,” allegedly because of pressure from legislators and representatives from the coal, mining, gas and petroleum industries. The artist, Chris Drury, intended the work to provoke discussion about climate change—though perhaps not this exact discussion. Is such pressure from funders and influencers really more rare at a university museum than, for example, at the Smithsonian or a private nonprofit? And are campus museums, as a result, more innovative than their non-campus peers? I’d like to hear what you think.
Call for Comments
So, here’s your chance to weigh in. Read the report and let me know:
- Do you think it asks the most important questions about the future of campus art museums?
- On which points do you agree with the participants and where do you side with the “counterpoints” offered by the authors? Or do you have a third point of view to share?
- What hasn’t this report asked yet, that we should bring into the follow-up conversation?
Weigh in here, in the blog comments or contact me if you are interested in writing a follow-up post.